- One of the many District parks NPS oversees. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Cordiality filled the air of the Old Council Chambers when I arrived at 1:25 p.m. last Saturday for the National Park Service town hall organized by D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. A welcome table full of literature sat outside the doors with multiple staff members. A man even ushered me into the chambers, pointing me toward available seats. At the front of the room were multiple posters promoting NPS activities, all colorful and bright. We received sheets with contact information for the many different officials, who sat facing the audience in a long table in the center of the room. Unlike my visit to the Old Council Chambers two days earlier for the D.C. Taxicab Commission meeting, on Saturday a large group had gathered to hear from NPS officials and voice their concerns — and for a first-ever NPS town hall, I thought the dialogue was a fantastic opportunity that did not go to waste.
"I hear on occasion that we’re difficult to work with," said Bob Vogel, NPS superintendent for the National Mall and memorial parks, "and I apologize for that,"
Vogel's conciliatory tone dominated Saturday's NPS town hall. NPS officials exuded keen awareness of how people have perceived them in the past. NPS is a critically important organization for anyone in the region interested in transportation, real estate, and big community events. The NPS manages more than 350 properties and more than 6,877 acres throughout the D.C. area, where 20% of land is park land. But as I pointed out on Friday, the national organization has angered everyone from bicyclists to evangelists. Norton was right to help organize such a discussion, and park officials showed extreme willingness to talk about what concerned the audience, which included multiple ANC commissioners, questions about pedicabs, about the end of Tourmobile, and about the complications people face when they want to hold community events or do anything on NPS land.
This engaged audience was most definitely not afraid to discuss past problems with the NPS. After a half dozen NPS officials offered introductory words, Norton opened the discussion to questions. "Who's gonna be first?" she asked. Multiple hands shot up into the air before even five seconds passed by.
"The best day I ever had was June 12, 2010," Dupont Circle ANC commissioner Mike Silverstein told the NPS representatives. "It was the day we had [World Cup] soccer in the Circle and the Pride Parade an hour and a half later. Both went off without a hitch."
But despite Silverstein and other community members' cleanup, apparently the NPS assessed the land after the Pride Parade and took $3,000 from their deposit. Silverstein's people "were lectured like errant schoolboys" and told they had made a mess. Silverstein's takeaway from the NPS? "Don't do it again because it's too much trouble."
Silverstein also brought up a desire to widen the 23-inch sidewalks on Connecticut Avenue around Dupont Circle and encountered resistance from the NPS, who had wanted to keep a design from more than 80 years ago. "Stonewalled!" the ANC commissioner declared. "Is the park more important than the safety of the people? … How can you not be concerned with the safety of the people? … Yes, there has been a fatality on that spot."
"Historic preservation was never meant to put people in danger or prevent modernization," Norton remarked.
"I apologize if we gave you an impression that we were stonewalling," Vogel told Silverstein. "At times we do have differing views within the community and we do have laws that we need to follow, but we do need to sit down [and talk with community members]."
Yet in opening their officials, from regional director Stephen Whitesell to Vogel other superintendents like Tara Morrison and Alex Romero, the NPS attracted its fair share of thanks and appreciation. The frustration that multiple audience members expressed concerned their difficulty with getting through and communicating with NPS officials, and Saturday's gathering sought to end that silence. Conversation topics included the new transportation plan for the National Mall. Will the Circulator have a role around the Mall? What about pedicabs? Capital Bikeshare? NPS says it's open to exploring all these notions and will release their own plan later this fall. The protest groups have also, we learn, begun to frustrate the downtown BID "because there's trash." Other topics of discussion ranged from deer to signage to magnetic fields as well as how the NPS can move forward and connect with the District's public in a far more meaningful way, especially given what appears to be a high turnover based on how many new officials presented on stage to the D.C. audience. The National Park Service should, as a couple audience members suggested, keep holding town halls like this, if not once a month then at least two to four times a year, to cast open these issues in a public and healthy way. Any resentment toward the NPS would decrease in time with such meetings, I predict, and will show a renewed commitment to openness that many town hall attendees found lacking in the past.
"To me the number one problem with the Park Service in Washington is transparency," director of Center for City Park Excellence Peter Harnik told the NPS officials. "There’s an amazing lack of transparency ... The issue of transparency is a huge issue that needs to be evaluated for you, top to bottom, public relations and everything.”